February 14, 2022


The art of anticipation

By Álvaro González.

The ability to anticipate opponent movement is essential for any speed-based sport. When fast reactions are required, if the player waits to see the ball trajectory, it will be too late. So, the art of anticipation consists of foreseeing ball trajectory from the postural cues and movements of the opponent. It is to correctly predict the direction of the game. What stands out in athletes who have the ability to frequently anticipate is their intelligence and game vision, and even their age. It seems that they think several seconds ahead compared to the rest. These kinds of interventions have been qualified by the scientific literature as acting ‘on the border of impossible’.  It is about an ability that today, in elite sports, is utterly decisive.

Anticipation in expert and novice athletes

The mechanisms that allow anticipation have been a subject of study since the seventies, in general, using the temporal occlusion technique. This is, showing the athlete videos of different time-length sequences before stopping it. In the United Kingdom, an experiment regarding tennis was conducted in 1978. They showed videos with serves to a series of participants. The scene was cut at the moment of contact with the ball, and the participants were asked to predict the direction of the ball and where it was going to fall. They had to mark it with an “x” on the drawing of a tennis pitch divided into quadrants.

Participants’ judgement was obliged to be made with the information available before ball-racket contact, with the signs they could detect from postural cues and movements of the player performing the serve. Participants were expert and novice tennis players, and the results showed that the first were more accurate in predicting where the ball would end up. It may seem like an obvious conclusion, but at that time, it was useful to highlight the relevance of interpreting postural cues of the opponent, and most of all, to underline that practice and experience develop automatism to do it. The same results were later found in experiments undertaken with expert and novice handball goalkeepers.

Which cues trigger an action?

Later, other research showed that information is taken from a group of interrelated cues distributed all around the body.  Participants who paid attention to a single detail or to an isolated source of information had worse results. Besides, it was proven that expert players have the ability to tell deceiving from genuine actions and to identify sequence patterns during the game. The anticipatory mechanism is an extremely complex technique.

We have to understand that the study of reaction time, which is usual in psychology (pushing a button after a signal), is not comparable to sports actions because their responses are not so simple. If we take a football penalty as an example, and to a lesser extent a handball one, it is studied that information exchange, visual scanning, takes place in both directions, from the goalkeeper to the shooter and from the shooter to the goalkeeper. Glances are exchanged from the positioning of the ball in the penalty spot. Accurately identifying the triggering cue of a specific decision is not easy. It is a process with many sequences before contact with the ball takes place.

During the game, in the flow of ball possession, it is even more complicated. As a rule, the contact with the ball is usually the reference. It is the instant in which there is an alteration in the visual information available. This moment is known as point 0 in time analysis even if the scanning began before, and it could be also influenced by the observation of other actions taken in the game or by the observations the coach made and warned the player; a video during the week, for example.

Besides, it is not enough to know the cues at the beginning of a play because each specific outcome can take different shapes.  For that reason, it was discovered in successive studies that athletes assign real probabilities to each action as a way of reducing uncertainty, which would reduce the cognitive load. This process develops by identifying a series of relevant cues to rule out the minor ones. To sum up, skilled players process information they detect hierarchically and classify it according to its relevance in order to assign probabilities, and anticipate the possible scenarios that will be triggered.

It is an adaptive phenomenon in which the athlete’s personal features also play a role. A research in 2010 found that in penalties, less agile goalkeepers, on average, started their block between 150 and 250 milliseconds before the shot while the fastest ones held it until 50 and 100ms. The ones with the higher average of saves were the latter, the ones who held longer. We could talk about an information peak. An instant in which we can gather the maximum amount of information about an action that ensures an accurate reaction. Always an instant before the action to have an anticipatory reaction. In fact, there are scholars who consider that athletes are not anticipating; instead, they are adapting, adjusting and calibrating their actions. This is, as it was explained in the article of the journal Studies in Psychology: “to temporize our own actions according to the functional capabilities of action and the spatio-temporal constraints of the task.”

Training anticipation

The skill to predict how the game will continue could be altered by stress, as any other ability, and by the workload or fatigue. These factors modify the perceptual-cognitive skills, the way information is processed. For this reason, scientific literature suggests training this skill like any other ability in sports.  It will be ideal to do it with training sessions in similar contexts to the ones where the competition will take place, where the perception-action cycle is respected for the player to locate the most relevant sources of information, and learn to get key information to anticipate what is going to happen next.

However, anticipation could also be trained with isolated exercises. In a training session closer to the real game, the action tendencies of opponents and their positioning are important. But in another type of more specific exercise, postural information, such as gestures, sideways or profile, could be as relevant. In short, the praxis. When Johan Cruyff was a coach in Ajax, he trained 10-year-old players in the parking lot. He thought falling on concrete was much more uncomfortable than falling on the grass. That is why footballers learned to move and make decisions about what to do with or without the ball on that surface. He was training their minds.

‘With this little detail of a training session you are constraining two or three really important aspects: positioning, ball control, speed, focus. In the long term, this will be useful and it will have direct consequences on what  you do on the field, and as a result, on the team’s global performance. So, just by changing a simple thing such as the training place, from the field to a parking lot for a training session, incorporating the circumstance of a rough and unusual field, you are encouraging anticipation, speed. You learn to arrive first, to let the ball go before and to pass it swiftly. In summary, you are training three actions in one. And it is possible that strong and hefty players have never trained these details.’   Johan Cruyff.

In short, the key aspect of these skills is the ability to obtain information and process it. If we talk about football, anticipation is useful for the goalkeeper to predict the trajectory of a shot or of a center to the area; for the defender to interrupt an assistance or block an attack; for midfielders to disrupt possessions and for forwards to predict the defensive movements of their opponents. However, there is another factor and it is even more decisive: scanning the game before receiving the ball.  Gathering information is what makes a player with no ball possession, before receiving it, decide what they will do with it.

Scanning before an action

Research available shows that the more the footballer scans, the more successful their actions are. Arsène Wenger, in the 2020 edition of the Sports Tomorrow Congress organized by Barça Innovation Hub, stated he requested his analysts and data science experts research to find out how many times the best European football players look at their surroundings within the 10 seconds before they receive the ball. In the Premier League, high-level players did it from 4-6 times, and the stars between 6-8. The peak in the European scale was Xavi Hernandez with 8.3.

Professor Geir Jordet, who has undertaken many studies about scanning, confirmed the ranking that placed Xavi as the football player with more scanning abilities. According to his research, players take those looks between passes. When the ball is touched, when the direction changes, they look the hit but while heading towards their objective, they are aware of other circumstances happening in the field in that moment. It is as complicated and simple as driving a car.

The great achievement of these findings would be to turn them into a technique, like anticipation, that could be trained. According to Jordet, research done with football players from formative categories, with a large margin for learning, found out that the ability to scan a greater number of times could increase. But it was more complicated to translate that into an improvement in the success of the following actions.  The hypothesis is that scanning should be inserted as a habit to foster from the beginning in the youngest players, so they can internalize it as soon as possible. In his words: ‘Just like we tell our kids to look to both sides before crossing a busy road.’


A current approach to anticipation in sport

José Antonio Navia et al

Anticipation in sport: Fifty years on, what have we learned and what research still needs to be undertaken?

AM Williams & RC Jackson

Reading the Future from Body Movements –Anticipation in Handball

  1. Cocić et al

Integrating explicit contextual priors and kinematic information during anticipation

N Viktor Gredin et al

Scanning, Contextual Factors, and Association With Performance in English Premier League Footballers: An Investigation Across a Season

Geir Jordet et al

Using an Imagery Intervention to Train Visual Exploratory Activity in Elite Academy Football Players

Chris Pocock et al.

Me gusta el fútbol (RBA, 2002). Johan Cruyff.





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